“If I have lost confidence in myself, I have the universe against me.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
One way to confront a monstrosity is to pretend that it is perfectly ordinary, like a moth whirring blindly into the glass of a cake display.
Recently, I gained an acquaintance who simultaneously admires my burn scars and acts as though they are invisible. At a bar in Bronxville, New York, she introduced me to a male friend as “one of the hottest ladies around.” Not immune to irony, I smiled and shook his coarse, meaty hand.
During these formal introductions that require brief bodily contact, I am well-aware that the stranger is probably taken aback by the stiff crookedness of my little half-limb, as it disappears into the lines of their palm. (I am missing a couple of fingers and the rest are shrunken and fused at contorted angles. It’s not like I actually get a grip on the person’s hand when I shake it; I simply insert mine into theirs and allow them to carry out the motion.) For me, it is like a willful sinking into quicksand, from which I emerge with stronger legs. I can see the trace of surprise in muscles surrounding the stranger’s mouth, which is almost always followed by a poker player’s soberness. Half of the time, some offhand comment is pitched out of panic. It could be about the weeklong bout of rain, or a necklace I am wearing. This man noticed that I was drinking scotch and expressed a strange blend of approval and disappointment (“Wow, the strong stuff! How’s a little girl like you still standing? I’m impressed. But you should stay away from it. Don’t you hate the burn?”).
I guess he considered himself a connoisseur of hard liquors, because he went on to describe nuances between red and black labels for quite some time. I excused myself so I could grab my belongings from halfway down the bar. Sometimes you have to “check out” to remind yourself why you’ve checked in at all.
In the time that I was gone, he must have said something about my disfigured appearance to my female acquaintance. I know this because I heard her explain to him: “She was in a fire.” For added effect, she motioned flames with her hands.
I moseyed back in a manner reminiscent of an Old Western, and coolly added: “My house burned down when I was sixteen.” Their brows furrowed. Both had assumed a kind of pact-like secrecy regarding their exchange, and so they acted ignorant of why I would mention such a thing out of nowhere upon my return. I got an “Excuse me?” and a “What do you mean?” Dear All, partial invisibility does not mean total deafness.
I went on to tell the man that I was burned 68% of my body to the third degree, as a result of a candle left unattended overnight. I had infections, emergency reconstructive surgeries like skin grafts, and amputations, etc. He nodded. The woman, who already knew all this, must have felt so uncomfortable with being “caught” in the act of having paraphrased my story in my absence… because she suddenly remembered a story from high school that needed telling. It was winded and wildly gesticulated, about an expensive prom dress that her wasted best friend almost threw up on. The point of the story, it seemed, was that the dress was ridiculously beautiful, and how sad it was that she had to take care of her friend all night, when she could have been having fun. I guess she thought I would forget by distraction about what we had just been discussing. Her deflective tangent came to a laughing close, and I responded:
“What does that have to do with fire?” Call me an asshole, but my story was obviously more interesting. Interesting enough that it had to be kept secret, at least.
Again she defended, “What do you mean? We’re not talking about fire.”
“But you were,” I maintained, and turned to the man, since it was he who had asked in the first place. I offered him everything. “What do you want to know? I’m 100% okay with talking about it.”
He copied her tactic, revisiting something he had forgotten to say about scotch.
So the night went. I was not offended by their discussion of me when my back was turned, but by the stubborn denial of its occurrence, even after I was clearly willing to address the matter in question.
One topic of conversation thereafter that is worth mentioning is whether you can gather any reliable information about personality through the eyes. The man insisted that he could tell I was strong and kind-hearted. I thanked him, but argued that surfaces are deceiving.
After the man left, I figured that my female acquaintance would feel less pressure to conceal the truth. I bought her a drink. It was last call.
“Come on, now. I’m dying to know. What did he say when I walked away?”
“He asked how it is that I am able to find such intelligent people for friends.”
“That sounds like an insult to you,” I said. “Like he was calling you stupid. Now really, what exactly did he say?”
She sighed and reported, “He said, ‘What happened to her?’ And dear, it’s not a big deal. Some people wear their scars…” She paused to sip her Bud Light.
“Like they don’t really care what people think of them.”
“Right,” I said, as the lights dimmed. The barkeep had begun to flip over stools. “In the same way that you would walk around in clothes, as if you’re not really naked underneath.”
Since when did nudity in the psychic sense become taboo? In this same location, only a few months earlier, I had met another burn survivor (—unknowingly. His sleeves were long.) This kind of encounter happens rarely. You’d think that it’d be easier to open up and connect to someone who shares your particular experience, but this guy waited until I went to the bathroom to ask my friend the same question: “What happened to her?” The saddest, lamest kind of funhouse is one that lacks opposing mirrors.
I understand that people are hesitant to mention what could be a sensitive subject. I get that this equals politeness, and that I probably made my acquaintances uncomfortable with my rude persistence. It’s just that some people wear their scars as if they do really care what people think. I am one of them, and I want people to know that the hardest part is when they look away.
In general, when you refuse to acknowledge something so glaringly apparent like facial disfigurement, it further isolates the disfigured. And if you assume that the person who lives with an injury or birth defect cannot stand to discuss it, then to some extent you must imagine that they cannot bear to confront themselves on a daily basis. Of course there is a difference between talking about your suffering and enduring it. That difference is cathartic.
There are some burn survivors who never leave home. It is there that they feel less naked. That makes me an exhibitionist, and I dare you to look.